A federal appeals court panel yesterday upheld a lower court ruling that the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse must admit as a partner a Washington woman who was denied that promotion because of her sex.

The case, which had at one point reached the U.S. Supreme Court, is the first in which a court has ordered admission to partnership as a remedy in a job discrimination case.

U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell had found in 1985 that Ann B. Hopkins of Washington was illegally denied promotion to partner because of "stereotypical attitudes toward female candidates" and after a series of appeals ordered her made a partner.

The decision attracted wide attention because partnerships had traditionally been viewed more like families than groups of employees and their employer. And indeed, the accounting firm argued in its latest appeal that, among other things, the court lacked the power under federal civil rights law to order Hopkins made a partner and that such an order would violate the existing partners' constitutional right to freedom of association.

However, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal for the D.C. circuit termed those arguments "untenable." It also rejected Price Waterhouse's contention that, because of alleged misconduct by Hopkins after being denied partnership, ordering her made a partner would be inequitable.

A Price Waterhouse spokesman said the firm was "obviously disappointed" and said that the firm's partnership decisions were and are made "on the basis of nondiscriminatory professional criteria."